Christian Long

Lee Smolin: Science and Democracy

In TED Talks on April 18, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Reflection by KYLE M.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Lee Smolin:  Science and Democracy

In a previous TED Talk I analyzed, I devoted a large portion of the write-up to firmly disagreeing with the speaker, Richard Dawkins.  While I respect the man immensely as an excellent writer and biologist, I thought the methodology he presented for being a “militant atheist” was egregiously counter-productive, validating my rather harsh response.

After experiencing Mr. Smolin’s presentation, however, I realize I should have bestowed Richard with far more credit.

Namely, Dawkins’ speech at least presented ideas substantial enough to oppose, as well as in a manner that was both captivating and unquestionably stimulating; conversely, the case Smolin introduces is insignificant at best, sloppily conceived at worst, and utterly mundane throughout its entirety.

The notion driving Lee’s presentation is that both scientific and political thought have evolved parallel across the generations, and that the process of both fields functions on comparable principles. It’s hardly a radical concept, and one might suspect that Smolin intends to draw a stunning, profound conclusion from the relationship; such a revelation never arrives, and the viewer is instead left with nothing more than poor reasoning and lackluster presentation skills. The first example of such arrives very early in the speech: while attempting to explain how science works, Lee inexplicably asserts that there is no such thing as the “scientific method.” Seemingly assuming that his audience will take such a bold claim at face value due to his credentials, Mr. Smolin makes no effort to expand on his proclamation, thereby leaving any sensible viewer with numerous questions: does he really mean to suggest that the literal scientific method is faulty or not practiced, or is he using “scientific method” in a more general sense in order to demonstrate that science is approached in different ways by different people? I can only assume the former is the case, as Lee also says that what “they” told us in school was a lie, making it appear he is indeed referring to the literal scientific method.

At any rate, it’s both an unsupported and vague statement; such sets the tone for the rest of the speech.

Following several overly-dense and unattractive PowerPoint slides (one in particular contains a staggering amount of information, scarcely any of which Lee bothers to mention; what on Earth was he thinking?) on superficial resemblances between science and democracy (“they both require reasoning…and…consensus,” proclaims Smolin, somehow convinced he’s offered anything bordering on insight), Lee finally begins to illustrate his core “argument”: he states that there have been three primary epochs in scientific ideas (without offering as much superfluous detail as he did, the first era thought of the universe as a hierarchy, the third and current one perceives it in a more relational/relativistic light [citing Darwinism and quantum theory as examples], and the second sat comfortably in the middle), and that our theories on politics and democracy have expanded in the same way; therefore, both studies are “deeply intertwined” within each other, and a new form of democracy will arise as a product of their melding.

To Smolin’s credit, he does an adequate job of pointing out the common attributes of both fields (albeit through dry, non-engaging means), but the assumptions he makes based on this are unfounded and bizarre; for one, he states that Darwinism and quantum theory are the “pillars” of twentieth-century thought, which he apparently deems true based on the fact that ideas in other areas such as the political arena harbor similar traits; one cannot help but wonder why he never considered the other (and more likely) alternative: the more advanced societies become, the more they tend to yield complex ideas in every medium, from politics to science to the arts. In that case, science would not be a “pillar” for politics; rather, they’d both simply share a common ancestor in social and intellectual progress, explaining their familiar characteristics.

Further, he offers an incredibly weak answer to the obvious question of “so what?” His claim is that as science becomes more and more in-tune with the relational and pluralistic nature of the universe, democracy will evolve in tandem to consider the interests of all, rather than simply the majority. Obviously, it could be argued that that’s how democracy has always ideally worked, and that to view its current state as the majority pillaging the various minorities is awfully cynical and ignorant; of course, such has been the case in numerous instances, but an abuse of an ideology doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally flawed or needs alteration. I concur that democracy will hopefully inch closer and closer to its ideal state as time rolls on, but such will be the consequence of progress at large, not any singular science. He could easily combat my idea by presenting evidence that there was a direct correlation between scientific theories and societal thought as a whole; unfortunately, if such proof exists, he’s not yet made any effort to make it apparent.

One shouldn’t be deceived by the critical tone I’ve displayed.

Smolin comes across as clearly nothing short of an intellectual giant, no doubt more proficient in his areas of study than I could ever dream to be. Still, that does not change the fact that his presentation is a poor one, and I feel obligated to give an honest response to it and it alone.

I don’t want to throw out the demeaning claim that he should stick to physics, but if he wishes to dabble in the art of public speaking, he has a ways to go.

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